Upsetting the apple cart?

Owners of orchards and wineries on the Golan Heights are concerned their communities might end up like those near Gaza.

Ein Zivan's apple orchard manager Alex Kodish. (photo credit: DROR ARTZI/JINI)
Ein Zivan's apple orchard manager Alex Kodish.
(photo credit: DROR ARTZI/JINI)
By NOAM AMIR Last week, Golan Heights residents were reminded of an incident that occurred two decades ago, when a Syrian citizen who was looking for some excitement shot at Israeli farmers working their fields near the border.
Then-Syrian president Hafez Assad ordered the gunman arrested and, following a lightning-speed trial, he was promptly executed. When his son, Bashar Assad, came to power, residents of northern Israel hoped he would follow in his father’s footsteps and keep the peace in the area. But when the bloody Syrian civil war broke out, Israeli residents of the Golan Heights called for the younger Assad’s downfall.
Since it’s become known that the rebels who’ve taken over the Kuneitra crossing identify with and are backed by al-Qaida, Golan residents have changed their tune. Now they realize that for Israel, an Assad-backed regime would be better than having violent rebel forces controlling the border.
“Criminal gangs” is what Golan residents call the rebels, hoping the shooting across the border from Syria won’t continue to endanger their lives, livelihood and life’s work for much longer.
They’ve successfully weathered worldwide calls to boycott their products and label them as occupiers. Indeed, “we don’t need them to buy our products,” says Karina Chipolinski, owner of the De Karina chocolate factory.
Ten years ago, the Argentinean-born Chipolinski came for a visit to Israel.
As she was touring the Golan, she breathed in the crisp, clean air and immediately fell in love, deciding right then and there that she would build her home and business there.
“De Karina is a successful business, but it’s also a tourist attraction,” Chipolinski says. “The shelling from Syria is disturbing, but Israeli tourists have not been frightened away and large numbers still come. I trust in our country and the IDF to protect us, and I hope that we won’t be dragged into drawnout fighting because that would deal a significant blow to our revenue.”
The summer months are high season in the Golan Heights. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to the area and business owners work around the clock to acc o m m o d a t e everyone. Operation Protective Edge, which wreaked havoc on the South, affected tourism in the North, too, and fewer Israelis went on vacation. But thanks to local municipalities in the North that hosted southern residents, Golan business owners managed to make a profit, all while being filled with the spirit of volunteerism and community service.
The sweet, magical experience Chipolinski provides is just 20 kilometers from the famous Golan Heights apples.
On the way to the orchards, you pass right by a lookout point overlooking the Kuneitra Valley. We arrive there in early morning and all is quiet on the border. Yet just last week, a violent battle took place at this spot, with tank fire, aircraft and mortars that flew in every direction. Eyewitnesses described the scene as a full-blown battle.
The quiet is broken by Israelis who come here hoping to catch a glimpse of some live action, to feel like they’re involved in the war – as if the recent activity surrounding Gaza these last few months wasn’t enough. Every cloud of dust that billows in the air from a car traveling over gravel is turned into a matter of interest.
“This is the spot where we were attacked by the Jordanians. They shot Sagger anti-tank missiles at us and a friend in my military company was killed,” an elderly man recalls, regaling the group of youngsters he has brought with him on a tour of the area.
“Heavy fighting took place here, especially on the western side,” the man continues. “Do you know how many IDF soldiers were killed here? Each unit thrust a flag into the ground and declared it had occupied the territory.
The difference is that back then, no one bothered us about it.”
AS WE look out toward Kuneitra, we can see the orchards of Ein Zivan. Between the abandoned UN Disengagement Observer Force base and the kibbutz entrance gate lies 202 hectares (500 acres) of apple, nectarine, cherry, pear and peach trees. “This is a piece of God that no one will ever succeed in harming,” says orchard manager Alex Kodish. “We’re not just a business with hired hands – we’re a full-fledged tourist site. Every year, thousands of Israelis come here to take part in the harvest experience.”
A portion of the crops harvested at Ein Zivan is exported to Syria. If the shaky security situation across the border continues, Kodish surmises, the tourism aspect of the business might be shut down.
“Assad is good for us,” says Kodish.
“Every year he buys loads of apples from us. But no one on the other side of the border has any time to deal with buying apples now, so all of the apples are remaining on this side of the border for now.”
Kodish says that nevertheless, Ein Zivan will not sustain any economic hardship this year – as long as the shelling ceases. Last week, the IDF declared the orchards a closed military zone and demanded the dozens of field workers be evacuated. “If we don’t get in there this week and pick the apples, though,” Kodish says anxiously, “we won’t be able to get them to people’s dinner tables in time for Rosh Hashana.
“We’ve built a Zionist enterprise here,” Kodish says, pointing to the workers who are purposefully picking fruit. “Some of our workers are students who’ve just completed their IDF service, and wanted an opportunity to work in agriculture and feel the earth between their fingers.”
The young workers tell me not to worry – they won’t abandon the orchards.
“There are explosions in the area, but we’re not worried,” says Golan Simets, a student from Jerusalem who clutches his fruit-laden sack. “I’m more pained by seeing all the Syrian citizens who are being slaughtered in this war. Just a few meters from where we’re standing there’s a war taking place, and yet here we are happily picking apples. How crazy is that?” Chen Peri of Ra’anana, picking fruit nearby, is also not worried; her parents, on the other hand, are a little less com-fortable with her being there. “They keep calling me,” she says, “they’re a bit stressed out. When a mortar shell fell nearby, we got scared for a second, but we’ve come to work here so we can feel connected to the land we love. This is an amazing place, and it’s so important to us that it survive and even thrive.
We’re not here for the money.”
Kodish and other farmers aren’t worried about their personal financial situations, but about the gradual change in routine that residents might experience – similar to what happened in the Gaza periphery area over the last 14 years. Although the Syrian civil war being fought on the other side of the border does not directly affect life in Israel, the main concern is that the balance of power in Syria will change over time.
“I would like to believe that the terrorist groups will be eradicated, otherwise this area will turn into another Gaza,” Kodish warns. “Assad needs to overpower them. If he doesn’t succeed, then Israel needs to do it.”
A FEW high-quality vineyards on the Golan Heights have reached exceptional levels. The cold winter up on the mountain is apparently the perfect climate for cultivating grapes, and Golan Heights wineries are known to be among the best in the entire Middle East. The wines produced in the area have won numerous awards and international competitions.
Although these wines have recently become a topic of conversation in Europe, it hasn’t been in a positive sense.
Unfortunately, many European countries have decided to boycott agricultural products from the Golan, claiming it is occupied territory.
The owners of Bazelet Hagolan Winery on Moshav Kidmat Zvi are not worried, however – in fact, just the opposite.
They’ve swapped their traditional corks and replaced them with corks covered with the Israeli flag. “We are exporting our wine as proud Israelis.
We want consumers to see our wines on the shelves and know clearly that they hail from Israel,” says Asaf Levy, one of the winery owners. “We’re not afraid of boycotts. Whoever doesn’t want to buy our products doesn’t need to; there are plenty of people around the world who do want to buy them. We do not feel threatened by boycotts.”
Like most Golan Heights residents, the Levy family is extremely Zionistic and imbued with a sense of mission, feeling a strong love for the country and the land. “We built this winery based on our strong Zionistic beliefs,” Levy says.
“Except for the kashrut supervisor, every one of our employees served in the army. We’ve hosted thousands of soldiers here free of charge; my father just hands them the key. They do barbecues, drink wine and when they’re done, they clean up after themselves and turn out the lights before they lock up.”
It all started one day when the Levy family was pining for something good to drink, and decided to set up a small brewery in their basement. What started out as a hobby has turned into one of the most successful wineries in the region. Bazelet Hagolan’s production levels have grown so much over the years that the amount of grapes they grow on the Golan Heights is not sufficient, and they had to plant vineyards in the Negev as well.
“We are suffering a bit from the recent Operation Protective Edge, and also because sales have dropped,” Levy admits.
Although the security situation does not keep them awake at night, winery owners are concerned about the future.
“Except for the rare moments when a mortar shell falls in our area, at which time we cannot harvest the chardonnay, the tensions in Syria don’t affect us much,” Levy explains. “But if the situation deteriorates and fighting near the border breaks out during harvest time, we’ll run into trouble because the grapes will rot on the vine.
“But this is not our biggest problem, actually – the problem is that there aren’t enough Israelis living in the Golan.
I hope people decide to come live here after reading this article. We’d really love it if our community grew. There is a huge need for workers in the Golan – not just at our winery – and it’s important we continue working.”
Golan local council heads hope this delicate situation will not last much longer.
They even invited Negev and Galilee Development Minister Silvan Shalom to tour the area; he expressed his concern and promised his full support.
It’s not clear how or when the war in Syria will end; some experts say Assad will try to recapture the Kuneitra area again. But one thing is certain: It would take an awful lot to destabilize the strong 40-year-old Jewish community on the Golan Heights.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.